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DEFIANCE (2009) **1/2 ADVANCED SCREENING review by COOP

Posted on January 14th, 2009
Posted on January 14th, 2009


Jewish resistance fighters during WWII, surviving and fighting despite insurmountable odds. You couldn’t ask for a higher profile property for a producer to latch on to. Add 007 Daniel Craig to the cast and you can’t lose. Or can you? How can a reliable Hollywood powerhouse like Edward Zwick blow such a procedural slam-dunk? Probably because of his usual procedure. It’s an easy premise, but a difficult film to shoot. He must’ve ignored that part of the script that said, “The Jewish refugees must survive in the wilderness for over two years… and you gotta film it.”

Three Jewish brothers, led by the determined Tuvia (Craig), the vengeful Zus (Liev Schreiber) and the young Asael (Jamie Bell) flee from Poland into the Belarussian wilderness to escape the Nazi slaughter of Polish Jews in 1941. They have little opportunity to mourn their murdered families as the SS sweeps through the area, killing or enslaving every Jew in sight. Without basic resources, they shelter thousands of refugees and survive harsh winters whilst striking the German invaders to gain crucial supplies. With every day becoming more desperate, the able men must choose to stay and protect the helpless or join the Russian Army to repel the Nazi onslaught, and risk abandoning their people.

The acquisition of this story as a major Hollywood film is a no-brainer. If I were a studio exec, I’d greenlight this idea without any hesitation. It’s a perfect idea for a big-budget Hollywood feature with the elements required to inform, inspire, thrill, shock and move the audience. It also has the ingredients to provide satisfying WWII action to the masses and showcase the hottest Hollywood talents. Plus it actually happened.

On paper, it’s a perfect storm. On the screen, they blew it. Director Zwick can’t decide whether to dial it down or amp it up, making him a poor choice to helm this production. He’s made a name for himself advocating cultural appropriateness for the other historical war films he’s directed (“Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond”). I truly appreciate the guy’s past work, but it’s 100% Hollywood flash. Here’s where he could’ve benefited from going not only independent, but also trying for a “Non-Ed Zwick” movie… That’s if he wanted to honor the memory of the people this story was based upon. He couldn’t decide whether to go full blown “Rambo” or tone it down into “Schindler’s List” territory. The guy couldn’t find his equilibrium.

I applaud most of the cast from separate projects. Daniel Craig is the best 007 in recent memory, but not spectacular here. Liev Schreiber (who most famously reprised the Laurence Harvey role in the 2004 “Manchurian Candidate” remake) probably has the most personal stake in the cast as not only a fine, intimidating actor; but as one of Jewish descent, giving his almost unlikable character a sense of ownership. Jamie “Billy Elliot” Bell gets little more than a standard supporting part, neither capitalizing on his tremendous acting/dancing abilities, nor allowing him to surpass his physical limitations as a man who looks like a kid. Even the gorgeous Alexa Davalos (some of you will remember her as the brawling mercenary “Kira” in the underrated “The Chronicles of Riddick”), gets little to work with besides nursemaiding Craig’s Tuvia.

While this moderately-budgeted film aspires to attain status as both historical learning tool and Hollywood blockbuster, I should note some frighteningly awkward scenes: At the beginning of Tuvia’s reign of insurrection, his band commits atrocities parallel to the action of terrorists. Another disturbing scene involves the normally peaceful camp of displaced Jews turning savage when they suddenly find themselves in possession of a Nazi soldier. The horrific rage inflicted on this soldier made most grindhouse films look tame in comparison, given the usually benevolent Jewish characters’ frightening reversal during the incident. Granted, I agree this is a realistic reaction, but it undermines the righteous tone of the film.

It’s a difficult film to review, but most mediocre films are. The true-life subject matter calls for a skillful and passionate administrative crew, yet said crew turn out a stereotypical screen adaptation, even glossing over the coinciding “holocaust” atrocities with a dismissive conversational sidebar. They even manage to offend the audience’s intelligence with the most egregious of war/action film clichés.

Worst of all, you’ve got the leads who look healthy, well fed and somewhat cleanly cropped (or “Hollywood shaggy” as I like to call it) while the supporting cast wears heavy, unattractive soot makeup and shambles, like zombies, past the camera, parading anorexic body structures. Daniel Craig doesn’t appear a decimal under 100% even while suffering from Typhus and coughing up blood. The film is plagued with sloppy action sequences and “here comes the cavalry” moments that make the entire effort seem staged and foolish. It’s a fantastic true story and I’d love to see it done justice, but like “Valkyrie,” I’d rather see the documentary version than this lazy fictional adaptation.

Rating: 2 and ½ out of 5 stars

Here’s a trailer 10x cooler than the film itself…

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